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Credentials of ‘degradable’ plastics questioned

11 March 2010

Some plastics marked as ‘degradable’ might not be as environmentally-friendly as consumers think, according to new Defra-funded research

The study, carried out by Loughborough University, examined the environmental effects of oxo-degradable plastics which are made from the most common types of plastic, but include small amounts of additives to make them degrade at an accelerated rate.

Oxo-degradable plastics are used in plastic bags and packaging and are often advertised as being degradable, biodegradable or environmentally-friendly. However, the independent study found that using additives to accelerate their degradation will not improve their environmental impact.

The study highlighted the uncertainty about the impact of the plastics on the natural environment when they begin to breakdown into smaller pieces. It also raised concerns that these plastics are neither suitable for conventional recycling methods, due to the chemical additives, nor suitable for composting, due to the plastic not breaking down fast enough.

Manufacturers, retailers, trade bodies and waste treatment companies were all consulted in the research, which was also put through a rigorous independent peer review by recognised academics.

Defra’s Environment Minister, Dan Norris said: “The research published today clearly shows us that consumers risk being confused by some claims made about oxo-degradable plastics. As these plastics cannot be composted, the term ‘biodegradable’ can cause confusion. Incorrect disposal of oxo-degradable plastics has the potential to negatively affect both recycling and composting facilities.

“We hope this research will discourage manufacturers and retailers from claiming that these materials are better for the environment than conventional plastics. I’ve been in touch with the companies affected and one retailer, the Co-operative, has already confirmed that it will not be using this type of plastic in its carrier bags in the future. This is a positive step and will make it easier for people to do the right thing by the environment.”

Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager, The Co-operative Food said: “We have already decided to stop purchasing carrier bags with the oxo-biodegradable additive and with the support of our customers and staff, we have reduced carrier bag numbers by 60% in the last three years.

"We have also launched the UK’s first home-compostable carrier bag, certified by the Association for Organic Recycling (and to EN 13432), which is accepted for food waste collections by a number of local authorities.”

Products made from compostable plastic are tested and able to bio-degrade within six months. To be totally sure the plastic you are buying is compostable, look for the following logos. The logo to the left certifies that the material is home compostable, and the logo to the right certifies that the material is suitable for industrial composting:

Defra is currently updating its guidance on Green Claims that will help businesses make accurate and robust claims about the environmental performance of their products and services and the guidance will be out for consultation during 2010.


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